The CTA Takes Over:
Resurrection by Modernization (1947-1970)

The Chicago Rapid Transit Company, a private company under public regulation, had failed to generate sufficient revenue from fares to cover operations, renewal, and modernization. The publicly chartered Chicago Transit Authority, it was hoped, could change all that. The list of tasks before the infant agency was considerable.

The CTA, however, fell prey to many of the problems and shortcomings of its predecessor. Comfortable in its dominance of the the downtown transit market despite warnings of shifting ridership as early as 1954, the CTA was slow to adjust to competition from the automobile. Although many routes were eliminated or modified, the CTA still failed to adequately adapt its surface system in many Chicago areas. But the CTA's biggest problem was something that was (and still is) out of its control. The legislation that had created the CTA in 1945 had required that at least 50% of its revenues come from the fare box. Essentially, a transit system that was unable to be self-sustaining as a private enterprise was somehow expected to do so as a public entity in a declining market.

In spite of these limitations and shortcomings, the CTA very actively reformed the Chicago rapid transit system in its early years. It's first task was to cut out all the "dead wood", ultimately including six small branch lines and nearly one hundred stations! Modernizations also enabled top cut the CTA workforce by half, though contact concessions in 1951 that allowed for a yearly cost-of-living increase in wages has nearly nullified that economy.


The System Contracts as the Fleet Modernizes

One of the things that kept the CRT unprofitable and uneconomical was that it failed to adopt to changing land use and ridership. No stations were built after 1930, less than five closed between the beginning of service in 1892 and the CTA's takeover in 1945, and no lines were ever abandoned.

The CTA quickly changed all that. They studied each rapid transit line and monitored each station. Then, bit by bit, they closed the stations and lines that were most uneconomical and had the lowest ridership to concentrate on the stronger routes. On March 27, 1948, Skokie service between Howard Street and Dempster Street was replaced by buses. On April 5, 1948, to speed up service (slow due to two track lines and old wooden trailers), the CTA introduced A/B skip stop service on Lake Street Line. Under this system, stops are coded "A", "B" or "AB". Trains are also "A", "B" or All Stops. The "A" trains stop at A stations and AB stations, B's at B and AB stations and All Stops at, well, all stops. This express service began during rush periods only, but spread to all day later. At the same time, ten low use stations were completely closed and Lake Street service was also discontinued to Market Street stub terminal outside the Loop. The North-South routes received the same treatment on July 31, 1949. Service was streamlined into the following routes: Howard-Englewood, Howard-Jackson Park, Ravenswood (Kimball-Loop), and Evanston (Linden-Howard during non-rush hours, Linden-Loop during rush); as well as the following shuttles: Kenwood (42nd-Indiana), Stock Yards (Stock Yards-Indiana), and Normal Park (69th Street-Harvard). A/B skip stop service was instituted on the Howard, Englewood, Jackson Park and Ravenswood routes, and 23 low-use stations were closed. On December 9, 1951, service on the Westchester branch was replaced by buses. A/B skip stop service was implemented on both the Garfield Park and Douglas Park branches for rush hour service. On February 3, 1952, service on the Douglas branch west of 54th Avenue was replaced by buses and on May 4, 1952, service was discontinued on the Humboldt Park branch. January 29, 1954 saw service discontinued on the Normal Park branch with "L" service discontinued on the Stock Yards branch on October 7, 1957 and on the Kenwood branch December 1st. Termination of Kenwood service also saw the end of the use of wooden cars on the "L".

The dual headlights identify these original order 6000-series rapid transit cars, emerging from the Evergreen portal of the newly-opened Milwaukee-Dearborn Subway in 1951. The all-metal cars represented the first step in the CTA's rolling stock modernization efforts. For a larger view, click here. (Photo from the CTA Collection)

By 1960, just 13 years after assuming transit operations, 1/4 of the rapid transit system and the entire streetcar system had been abandoned. While these cuts may seem horrendous in the modern view of transit cutbacks, they were in many ways revolutionary and forward thinking for the time. The CTA's planners were willing to relinquish decades-old transit axioms to achieve a streamlined, cost-efficient system. The other reason for the CTA's desire to economize (which had other effects beyond the "L" system, such as abandoning the streetcar system and placing it with buses just years after modernizing the surface fleet, see the next paragraph for more on this) lies in the terms of the agency's bond indenture that put repayment of principal and interest first. Thus, CTA had to salvage assets and cut operations to meet the convenants of its bonds. As a result, in the early decades of its existence, the CTA was able to cover its costs and modernization programs through farebox revenues and bond issues.

Not all the changes the CTA involved deconstructing the system. On September 17, 1950, the first of the new all-metal PCC 6000-series transit cars are delivered to the CTA. Built by the St. Louis Car Company, the number of these type of cars would eventually reach 770 (#1-50 and #6001-6720), dominating the CTA's fleet for decades. The first batch was placed into service on the Logan Square route. These cars represented the beginning of the CTA massive modernization program. Coincidentally, other recent equipment acquisitions were proving to be an untimely investment. The 600 PCC streetcars completed by Pullman and St. Louis Car Co. in 1946 and 1947 were hardly phased into service when it became painfully evident that a tremendous shift was underway in travel habits from public transit to private automobiles. What could be done with the nearly brand-new streetcars? Combining this quandary with the problem of replacing the CTA's fleet of aging wood-steel cars suddenly seemed an attractive solution. Perhaps a PCC streetcar could be rebuilt into a rapid transit car.

Although streetcars and rapid transit in Chicago used the same track gauge and operating voltage, extensive testing by both Pullman and St. Louis Car Co. proved that simply modifying an existing streetcar for "L" service was difficult and unfeasible. But another possibility existed: stockpile trucks, motors, control equipment, motor-generators, track brakes, seats, light fixtures, and even window frames, sash and sash-lifting mechanisms, build a new body shell and install on it the reconditioned components. The result would be a much more suitable rapid transit car, an updated version of (and fully compatible with) the 6001-6200 series cars. Ultimately, cars 6201-6720 and 1-50 were so constructed by St. Louis between 1951 and 1960.

Mayor Martin H. Kennelly cuts the ribbon on the new Milwaukee-Dearborn Subway shortly before service began on February 25, 1951. Standing with him are (left to right) motorman Wallace Munford, popular TV cowboy Monte Blue, and CTA Chairman Virgil Gunlock. For a larger view, click here. (Photo from the CTA Collection)

On February 25, 1951, the Milwaukee-Dearborn Subway opened, connecting the Logan Square and Humboldt Park branches with downtown, terminating at LaSalle/Congress. The new subway provided a more direct route to downtown from the Northwest Side; previously, Logan Square trains entered downtown over the tracks of the Garfield Park Line, requiring a circumferential trip through the near West Side via Paulina Street to enter the Loop. All that remains of the old route is the nonrevenue Paulina Connector between the Lake and Congress-Douglas Lines and an abandoned bridge over the Union Pacific (previous Chicago & NorthWestern) tracks.

Work on the new subway had been started concurrently with that of the State Street Subway, but wartime rationing held up completion of the line at each end, station finish, signal and track work, and delivery of new cars. The design of the Milwaukee-Dearborn Subway is essentially the same as the State Street Subway, opened in 1943, with twin deep bore tunnels and cut-and-cover Art Moderne stations. The facility's design was state-of-the-art for the time, with the use of fluorescent lights (first pioneered in the State Street Subway), reversible-direction safety escalators, and block signals. Representing the new, modern era of the CTA, only the agency's all-new 6000-series cars were in service there when the route opened. The subway was, however, little used since the south end stopped at LaSalle pending the construction of the Congress Line, so until 1958 it served only Northwest Side residents. With this opening, the CTA completed the subway program first embarked upon in 1939.



Chicago Pioneers the Median Transit Line

In the 1950s and '60s, Chicago embarked on the major project of creating an intricate expressway system in the city. The Congress Expressway plan, the first expressway within the city limits, took from 1949 to 1960 to complete and contained a novel idea: putting a rapid transit line in the median of an expressway. The Congress Expressway (later changed to Eisenhower Expressway) followed Congress Street west out of city, but also followed the route of what was the Garfield Park Branch of the old Metropolitan Elevated. The historic line had to be destroyed to accommodate the new expressway, so a temporary ground-level operation was instituted next to Van Buren Street for much of the length of the route. Although there were no stops on this temporary line between Halsted and Kedzie and there were numerous grade crossings to contend with, the alignment served the "L" satisfactorily during the construction period. However, due to the difficulties of the grade-level temporary route, the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin interurban, which used the Garfield Line to access the Wells Street Terminal in the Loop, cut their service back to Desplaines, eventually abandoning passenger service altogether in 1957. Concurrently, the city was converting Market Street along the South Branch of the Chicago River into the double-deck Wacker Drive, necessitating the removal of a short piece of the "L" which connected the Garfield Line with the Loop. To maintain a Loop connection, the Wells Street Terminal, which fronted onto the Loop near Quincy, was demolished and the stub tracks were extended through to a new junction with the Loop. With Westchester service gone since December 9, 1951 (it was never all that profitable anyway) and the new line terminating at Desplaines, the Congress Line represented no net gain in mileage for the "L", but did provide modern infrastructure and facilities over which to operate and a showcase for Chicago rapid transit innovations.

A brochure, published by the City of Chicago to commemorate the initiation of service June 22, 1958, describes the new line this way:

The new West Side subway is the first significant project providing rail rapid transit in the grade-separate right-of-way of a multi-lane automobile expressway... [an idea that] greatly increases passenger carrying capacity for comparatively little additional cost...

The use of the median strip has made possible construction cost distribution of one-fifth for transit facilities to four-fifths for expressway facilities.... The West Side subway has attracted world-wide attention... [It's] construction... and connection with the Milwaukee-Dearborn-Congress subway was financed by the City of Chicago.

The City of Chicago financed and constructed the portion of Subway between the east bank of the Chicago River and Laramie Avenue (5200 West), as well as the new terminal facilities in Forest Park, which will replace the former yard facilities at Laramie Avenue.

The new West Side Subway extension is a two-track facility, but the median strip is wide enough for future expansion., Between Halsted Street and Kenton Avenue (about four and a quarter miles) two more tracks may be added, and between Kenton Avenue and the terminal in Forest Park (about three and three-quarter miles) a third track may be added

Along the new subway extension there are fourteen stations spaced an average of about .7 miles apart; ten in Chicago, two in Oak Park, and two in Forest Park...

Each station platform in the expressway right-of-way is the island type, 600 feet long and canopied throughout its entire length. Supported by structural aluminum columns, the canopy extends beyond the platform edge and over the roofs of cars....

Stations on the Congress Line are nearly identical to each other, including an island platform and small station houses containing only a ticket booth and turnstiles and a long,

Nearing completion in this 1958 view, the Congress Line represented a revolutionary rapid transit design. For a larger view, click here. (Photo from the CTA Collection)

enclosed, sloping passageway/ramp connecting the two. Station design here is somewhat unique, resulting from a compromise between the historic concept of closely spaced stations (favored by aldermen) and widely spaced stations, coordinated with bus feeder routes (preferred by eager CTA planners anxious to improve transit service and system productivity). The fare collection buildings are about 42 ft x 21 ft. The more important stops are located between two cross bridges separated by about 1/4 mile and there is a station house and access ramp at each end. While there are obvious disadvantages to the long ramp concept, the compromise design did avoid the additional stops the CTA planners hoped to get rid of.

It is additionally interesting that most of the early literature referred to the Congress Line as a "subway", although it is not a subway in the conventional sense. It was, perhaps, considered so simply because it ran below grade (most of the Eisenhower Expressway runs in an open cut in Chicago); in any case, the West Side Subway was referred to as the Congress Line by most Chicagoans in short order and the name stuck (even after the CTA renamed it the Forest Park branch in the 1990s). The Douglas branch, which had temporarily been accessing the Loop via the Lake Street Line during the construction in 1954-1958, was connected to the Congress Line at Paulina Street east of Medical Center station, near where it had formally joined the Garfield Park Line at Marshfield Junction.

The Congress Line was never meant to access the Loop, but rather to be through-routed with the Dearborn Subway. Construction of a connection between the subway terminal at LaSalle/Congress and the Congress Line at Halsted progressed concurrently with that of the new median line, but standing in the path of the connection was the Chicago main Post Office, an enormous Depression-era structure that the Congress Expressway actually passes through. Subway construction crews removed sixteen foundation caissons from the massive building, placing new caissons around and in some cases on top of the new Congress Subway tunnels. Upon completion of the connection, the Congress and Douglas Lines were through-routed with the Milwaukee Line via the Milwaukee-Dearborn Subway, creating the new West-Northwest Route. When the West-Northwest Route began operation on June 22, 1958, all ex-Metropolitan operations were removed from the Loop elevated, with only the Ravenswood, Evanston Express, Lake, and North Shore Line interurban operations remaining there.



The Skokie Line Returns

The loss of another Insull interurban would net a considerable gain for both the CTA and the riding public in 1964. After the North Shore line ceased all serviced with the abandonment of the Skokie Valley route in 1963, the CTA took over the trackage from Howard Street to Dempster Street, Skokie. (The CTA had been using a three mile portion of the line even after the CTA abandoned service there in 1948 to access their Skokie Shops facility.) With help from a grant from Washington, the CTA re-instituted the service it had provided back in the '20s, '30s and '40s as the Niles Center Line, but this time with a new twist: all stations in between the two terminals were taken out and a shuttle service was instituted.

The Skokie Swift Line was popular from its opening day in 1964, when 6,500 traveled the route daily. The 1-50 series cars seen here were later supplemented by 5000-series units. For a larger view, click here. (Photo from the CTA Collection)

Recoined the Skokie Swift, the this rapid transit shuttle service was one of the first mass transit projects with cooperative sponsorship from the federal government and a mass transit agency. A "demonstration project" funded by the National Housing Administration, the Swift was to be a two-year experimental service to show that mass transit could be adapted to service the new suburban market. Service at each terminal was coordinated with local bus and "L" routes. A "Park'n'Ride" lot with a capacity of 555 cars, to operate with a fee, was constructed at the Skokie Terminal. It also included a "Kiss'n'Ride" where transit riders could be dropped off and picked up by auto. These features allowed the new service to cater to the auto market, which was fast taking hold in suburban America. The station's close proximity to the Edens Expressway additionally helped this objective. Space was also provided for a bus turnaround for both CTA buses and those of suburban carriers.

The initial plan was to provide fifty roundtrips a day at 15- or 30-minute intervals between 0600 and 2200 hours, Monday-Friday, except on holidays, with no service on weekends. Four experimental high speed cars -- 1-50 series units #1-4 -- were assigned, although only two cars were thought to be needed in the peak period. Patronage on opening day, April 20, 1964, was 3,939 riders and by the end of 1967 had risen to 7,500, a far cry from the 1,500 riders the North Shore Line had been carrying when it ceased service. Clearly, a revision in the operating plan was needed: the CTA's four articulated high-capacity cars -- 5000-series cars 51-54 -- were added for additional capacity, additional trips were added, and Saturday service was offered from the start. In the 1980s, five more married-pair units -- 61-65 series cars #61-65 -- were also added.

Skokie Swift promotional pamphlets. For a larger view, click here. (Graham Garfield Collection)

The line used driver-only operation, OPTO (one personal train operation), from the start, the first "L" line to do so. During the first years of the Skokie Swift, a maximum operating speed of 70mph was reached, although this dropped to a regular operating speed of 46mph over the five-mile, nonstop line, making it the fastest rapid transit operation in the world.

The new extension provided an overwhelming demonstration of the demand for good rapid transit in the suburbs: in its first year of operation the Skokie branch carried nearly five times the anticipated number of passengers. At the end of its two-year experimental period in 1966, it was concluded that a median-density suburban area could be linked effectively with the central business district of a central city by a high-speed transit service, provided that a public investment was made in the infrastructure and equipment. The route was absorbed into the regular CTA system and its operation continued uninterrupted after the experimental period ended. The project helped set the pattern for many new-start systems and was the prototype for what is today called light rail transit. Continued interest in the Swift has manifested itself in he desire for extensions north to Lake-Cook Road in Highland Park, IL (a location also previously served by the North Shore Line) and south from downtown Skokie to Montrose Avenue and a connection to the O'Hare branch. These projects are in the 2020 Transportation Plan, but await capital funding.


1965 map


Skokie Swift Progrss Report No. 4 (Jan. 1965) cover

Return to the Median:
The Dan Ryan Line and the Milwaukee/Kennedy Extension

During the 1960s, the CTA's planners still believed their primary focus should be to bring the system to modern standards. But now, they would do it through expansion rather than abandonment. Though many trains had been routed onto the subway system, the Loop's operational potential was still present. Loop service experienced a renaissance in 1969 with the creation of two new lines that would benefit Chicagoans who'd never had "L" service before: those on the far northwest side with the extension of the Logan Square Line and those on the south side with the creation of the Dan Ryan Line.

The Dan Ryan exceeded all ridership predictions from opening day in September 1969. For a larger view, click here. (Photos from the 1969 CTA Annual Report)

The Dan Ryan, built in the center of the new Dan Ryan Expressway from 1967-69, did two significant things for the "L": 1) it was the first line built under the CTA that was not a replacement or the resumption of previous services and 2) it provided service for citizens of the south side below 63rd Street who were otherwise stranded from "L" service. Total cost of the line was $38 million and the federal grant for the project was announced on March 14, 1967, but to fast-track the project, the City of Chicago Department of Public Works (the project construction agency) had already begun design. Construction began in January 1968 and the new route opened on September 28, 1969. The line began at 95th Terminal at 95th and State Streets in the median of the Dan Ryan Expressway. It continued in the median until 31st Street, then entered its own right-of-way, accessing the Loop via a connection to the old "Alley 'L'" at 18th Street where the Englewood and Jackson Park Lines had previously connected, allowing for through-routing to the Lake Street Line. The location of the Ryan-Lake Street run was such that it united the South Side of the city with the West Side and the suburb of Oak Park and thus serves two useful ends for the Chicago citizen and the urban economy: it makes possible for residents in the lower-income areas of the city to reach jobs in the suburbs, where many manufacturing and administrative centers had relocated during the postwar dispersal of industry, and it provides a similar service for suburban residents going beyond the center of the city. As a consequence of the advantages conferred by the location as well as the quality of service on the Ryan Line, the average number of weekday passengers on the route rose to 99,000 per day by the end of 1970, 10% over the expected total and was faster than the adjacent expressway during rush hour.

The Dan Ryan Line, however, introduced a few unexpected problems soon after it opened. As mentioned before, it was not intended to replace the nearby, parallel, heavily-used 1892-vintage Englewood-Jackson Park Line. Rather, its purpose was to supplement and relieve congestion on that part of the system. In fact, it did this all too well as it began siphoning riders off the old route. While the Dan Ryan experienced a better-than-expected ridership level, the Englewood-Jackson Park Line experienced an unexpected crash in ridership. To be sure, the Dan Ryan gained more than the Englewood-Jackson Park lost -- meaning that there was at least some gain in ridership -- but the loss on the South Side main line and branches startled the CTA. It should not, in retrospect, have been entirely shocking. Several South Side bus lines served the Jackson Park terminal at the end of the Jackson Park branch, several more served other stations on the two branch lines. Many commuters changed from buses to rapid transit here to continue to the Loop. But with the opening of the Dan Ryan Line, South Side buses were rerouted to serve 95th Terminal, 69th Street, and other stations; commuter transfers were now made here and the Englewood-Jackson Park stations were left to chiefly serve their surrounding neighborhoods, themselves in the midst of a population decline.

By the early 1970s, another problem became apparent. Before the Dan Ryan Line opened, the Howard and Englewood-Jackson Park Lines -- the North-South Route -- were fairly well-balanced in terms of ridership. The Howard Line had a higher ridership level to be sure, but as the only South Side rapid transit line, the Englewood-Jackson Park was the obvious choice as a partner and the South Side lines could become quite crowded at rush hours. The Lake Line, on the other hand, had a low ridership level that was continuing to drop, a clear mismatch for the expected high ridership of the Dan Ryan Line. The CTA, however, seemed to have little choice. The Howard Line might be a better match, but the connection would increase the already high construction costs and the Howard Line was already fairly well-matched with the Englewood-Jackson Park. That all changed, however, when the Dan Ryan began to quickly syphon off the Englewood-Jackson Park's riders. Soon, the Howard and Dan Ryan emerged as the better match, as did the Lake and Englewood-Jackson Park. But financial problems precluded the construction of the necessary Dan Ryan-State Street Subway connection to alter the through-routes; it would be another two decades before the switch could be made. In the meantime, both lines would have to maintain a high level of service, running long trains that were full on the Howard and Dan Ryan lines and virtually empty on the Lake and Englewood-Jackson Park lines.

The third expressway extension represented a new aspect of transportation connection in Chicago. In 1970, a new extension of the CTA opened in the Kennedy Expressway, extending the Milwaukee Line to Jefferson Park, just a heartbeat away from Chicago's new O'Hare International Airport. The vast possibilities for service to such an installation was obvious and the CTA caught on quickly; in the mid-1980s, the line was extended to O'Hare.

The Kennedy Extension was planned and funded concurrently with the Dan Ryan Line and the two were designed at the same time. But, even though the Kennedy Extension was shorter than the Ryan Line, the Kennedy Extension took longer to finish due to a number of construction complications. First of all, the section in the median of the John F. Kennedy Expressway had to be built in an existing, operating motorway whereas the Dan Ryan Expressway was built specifically to house the Dan Ryan Line in the median, though the expressway opened seven years before the "L" line. It also required a substantial length of subway to connect the old Milwaukee Line to the new Kennedy Extension. The cost of the extension was $50 million and operation began on February 1, 1970.

The design standards and architectural concepts were generally the same as those employed on the Dan Ryan Line. The Kennedy Extension continued the Milwaukee Line 5.2 miles beyond the Logan Square Terminal. The track of the new line split from the Milwaukee elevated just south of the old yard and terminal and descended into a new subway. The subway, constructed by the cut-and-cover method, proceeds northwest under Milwaukee Avenue, north under Kimball Avenue, then under the eastbound and express lanes of the Kennedy Expressway to emerge in the median, continuing another four miles northwest to the terminal near Milwaukee and Higgins Avenues. As was done with the Dan Ryan Line, CTA bus routes serving the Northwest Side were rerouted to feed the new line with maximum coordination, though in this case there was no parallel rapid transit line to risk siphoning ridership off of. At Jefferson Park, the line is surrounded on all sides by the expressway, so a traditional yard and shop layout was not possible. Nevertheless, the CTA somehow managed to wedge a yard in with a storage capacity of 108 cars and build a two-car inspection shop. Still, most overhaul work had to be done at the Desplaines and 54th Avenue yard facilities at the opposite end of the West-Northwest Route.

Continuing ridership declines and increasing inflation drove up costs and required fares to be increased another 80%. In order to bring itself up to a state in which it was adequately serving the City of Chicago, the agency's planners embarked on an expansion program that substantially increased its operating costs. The combined effect of the new Dan Ryan and Kennedy Lines, while increasing the system's ridership by 2.5%, was disastrous to the financially stressed agency's bottom line . For the first time, fares began to fail covering operating costs, let alone modernization costs.

The CTA's financial problems began to get politicians' attention. Up until this point, despite the radical thinking behind some of the CTA's planners, the agency had still essentially been run as if it were a private agency . But now the agency was running a deficit and the financial hemorrhage that was to plague the CTA for the rest of the century had begun. And it was this financial position, more than anything else, that would affect how the CTA did its transportation planning for the next twenty years.

The entrance of the federal government into the subsidization of public transit coincided not only with the beginning of the CTA's downslide but with the abandonment of many of transit lines and systems in Chicago and around the nation. In the mid-1960s, the federal government (through various agencies such as the U.S. Housing and Home Finance Agency, since no specific agency yet existed to dispense such funds) began to provide project-specific financing. Chicago took advantage for the aforementioned Dan Ryan and Kennedy projects, as well as for the Skokie Swift shuttle. But no regular operating subsidies were yet available and these federally funded projects only added to the CTA's operations and maintenance burdens and plunge into red ink.


1975 map